The current Prison Reform and Black Lives Matter movements are two of the most significant social justice campaigns of our time. The two are receiving long overdue (though not just recently sought) attention at both national and local levels, especially in Chicago. Though much is being done, there is still much more at stake, leaving a long path ahead of activists and politicians devoted to either cause. At this juncture, it is vital to acknowledge their accomplishments thus far, review their current action plans, and prepare for their future work. In doing so, we will find commonalities between the two movements and more thoroughly understand their impacts.
President Barack Obama has made prison reform a major priority during the remainder of his term. He has called various members of the government to action, requiring Congress to produce a bill on prison reform by the end of 2015. This has inspired the creation of many prison reform proposals, some by 2016 presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley. Nearly all of these proposals include amendments or abolition of mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses, recidivism reduction programs, the implementation of drug courts (on which new research, supporting their effectiveness, has been discovered), and re-visiting the ethics and benefits of certain punishments, such as solitary confinement. In addition to the President’s push, the overwhelming number of recent police brutality incidents, Black Lives Matter protests, and campaign interruptions by Black Lives Matter representatives have had an influence on the government’s prioritizing of prison and criminal justice reform. Moreover, Black Lives Matter chapters across the country are demanding that attention be directed toward issues such as adequate living and rehabilitation conditions for prisoners and inmates, decreasing levels of mass incarceration, lessening the harshness of certain drug laws, and strengthening communal police control and accountability through means outlined in a list of demands entitled Campaign Zero. This and local legislation have been drafted despite claims from politicians that Black Lives Matter groups call for action without offering their own solutions.
“The Black Lives Matter campaign existed before it became a ‘movement’,” LaCreshia Birts, a member of several youth activist organizations in Chicago, said in an interview. Organizations like the National Alliance Against Racial and Political Repression (NAARPR) have actually been fighting for prison and criminal justice reform for decades. In Chicago, the local Black Lives Matter chapter (BLMChi) joins the Chicago chapter and steering committee of the alliance (CAARPR), We Charge Genocide, the Stop Mass Incarceration Network (SMIN), Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP) and one of its member organizations: Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY), the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP 100) and a number of other organizations in their long-standing fight for the justice and rights of incarcerated adults and children. The groups are especially focused on those who appear to be targeted, are black, or are unjustly or inappropriately confronted by law enforcement. The connections between the prison reform and the Black Lives Matter campaigns intersect on issues of the reform of policing and its procedures, decriminalization of certain drugs, and demanding justice in specific cases of murder, committed by police and found unjust by the general public. All of these issues have led not only to mass incarceration for people of color, but also to a loss of community control over policing.
Many of the aforementioned, local activist groups and civil rights/social justice advocacy organizations have brought about significant accomplishments through their campaigns. BLM Chicago and collaborating organizations have demanded the immediate termination of Chicago Police Detective Dante Servin for the March 21 murder of Rekia Boyd. Aislinn Sol, lead organizer and founder of BLMChi, shared in an interview that “We participated in a successful shutdown of the Chicago Police Board hearing on August 20th, along with Black Youth Project 100, We Charge Genocide, the family of Rekia Boyd, and many other supporters by demanding the immediate firing of Dante Servin. Subsequently, the Independent Police Review Authority announced their recommendation to fire Servin.” Birts added to talk of this success, noting that approximately seven officers were fired from the Chicago Police Department. They were terminated for incidents not related to police brutality, but Birts asserted that these terminations still demonstrated an impact that the participating organizations had that day. She said that the movement has forced the board to be more critical of their officers at the very least.
Sol also shared progress on a separate initiative. He said, “We were successful in our work with many others in the City in getting the City Council to pass the reparations ordinance for survivors of torture by former police commander, Jon Burge – the first time such reparations have been awarded to police torture survivors in the United States.”
Along a similar line of successful campaigning, the organization known as FLY has accomplished the establishment of a trauma center on the Southside of Chicago after beginning to focus on youth incarceration/juvenile detention. This initiative came into existence after members of the organization discovered an indirect contribution to the death of Damian Turner, a leader and co-founder of FLY was killed by a stray bullet in a drive by. Turner’s treatment was delayed because his medical transportation bypassed the closest medical center, the University of Chicago Hospital, because it did not have a trauma center, and he was not able to be treated until he was brought to Northwestern Hospital, where he died. Five years later, the organization’s brave tactics, ranging from marches to blocking construction sites and locking university workers inside of their offices, helped to achieve their goal, made possible by the Sinai Health Systems and University of Chicago.
In addition to acting on many of the issues facing prison, criminal justice and policing reforms, Chicago organizations are drafting legislation to be presented to political leaders. The CAARPR, founding chapter of the NAARPR, is working to perfect and promote documentation that will encourage government officials to instate a Chicago Police Accountability Council, also referred to as CPAC, which will replace the current Independent Police Review Authority, also known as IPRA. When asked what solution she would offer to politicians seeking resolutions as well as demands to resolve, Birts firmly proclaimed, “CPAC is the solution.”
Black Lives Matter Chicago supports this legislation, which will divest and de-militarize the Chicago Police Department through the council. Sol asserted, “We demand the proposed additional $20 million proposed in the 2016 budget by Mayor Rahm Emanuel be contributed to our public schools. We demand a reduction of the Chicago Police force. We demand the $1.39 billion the City spends on police be reinvested in our public schools, public healthcare, the creation of a City jobs program, affordable/free housing for the homeless, and nearly homeless, and re-opening of all of the 49 closed public schools as well as the re-opening of all of the City’s mental health centers that were closed in 2012;” These demands clearly do not align with claims that community organizations who call political leaders to action do not call with proposed solutions.
The council will place police control in the hands of neighborhood representatives who will be elected from each of Chicago’s 20+ police districts. These representatives would possess the power to hire and fire officers, re-write the manual of protocol for police work, and subpoena members of local police departments as necessary. Though this legislation is starting out in Chicago, the alliance hopes to see it implemented nationally upon its success.
Similarly, We Charge Genocide, a volunteer-run Chicago organization that attends to the issue of police violence, is working on a Stops, Transparency, Oversight and Protection Act (STOP Act). The act will require collected and publicized data of any stops conducted by the Chicago Police Department. This data would include demographic information of those stopped and the badge numbers of all officers involved in these stops. It will also include the locations, reasons, and results of all stops reported. Additionally, the CPD would be required to provide receipts to those they stop and/or inform others of their right to refuse consent to being searched when stopped. We Charge Genocide’s website asserts that, “The STOP Act’s data transparency is a necessary component of any meaningful oversight of the CPD’s stop and frisk practices, including evaluation of whether they are being used fairly and effectively.”
We Charge Genocide and sponsoring aldermen Proco Joe Moreno and Roderick Sawyer held a press conference to announce their intention to file the STOP Act at the July 29, 2015 Chicago City Council meeting. The aldermen delayed filing the ordinance after learning that the CPD and City were on the verge of reaching an agreement with the ACLU-Illinois as a result of secret, exclusive negotiations on the collection of stop and frisk data. “The secret deal indicates that the CPD will collect data on stops and frisk conducted by its members, but this information will not be disclosed to the public. Contrary to the provisions of the STOP Act, only the CPD, ACLU and designated Consultant, former Federal Magistrate Judge Arlander Keys, will have access to the pertinent data and relevant information, and they are bound to keep this information confidential under an attorney’s eyes only agreement.” The organizers with We Charge Genocide and the sponsoring aldermen have announced their intention “to continue their campaign to pass the Stops Transparency Oversight Protection Act (the STOP Act) in Chicago’s City Council,” probably due to act’s specified requirement that CPD publishes their collected data, on a quarterly basis, to the City of Chicago’s website.
In addition to producing legislation, organizations like BYP 100 recognize the importance of the justice system and policy in bringing the change that many organizations involved in the Black Lives Matter movement are hoping for. Birts said that the organization’s “role is to highlight the fact that policies are needed to change the conditions of black youth.” Birts’ statement mimics the attitudes of many within her own organization and others toward criminal justice and prison reform for adults as well as children.
With legislative efforts, community organizations and activist groups have also worked to meet judicial and other goals. Following their efforts relating to the Rekia Boyd case, BLMChi plans to attend the Chicago Police Board hearing on October 15 and further demand the immediate firing of Detective Dante Servin without pension. Sol stated, “We are now focusing on the second step in a three step process to fire a Chicago police officer.” Regarding the second and third steps that Sol mentioned, Birts, a member of both BYP100 and CAARPR, informed that Superintendent Garry McCarthy would review IPRA’s recommendation, in order to make a firing decision, then the police board will have the final decision.
Because of a similar incident resulting in the killing of Ronald “Ronnieman” Johnson by Chicago Police Detective George Hernandez on October 12, the organization also demands the immediate release of a dash-cam video that recorded the incident, which members of BLMChi claim will reveal that Johnson was not armed or committing a crime at the time of his shooting. “The anniversary of the death of Ronald “Ronnieman” Johnson is October 12th, and we will gather at 53rd and King Drive with his family to celebrate his life and lift up his memory, demanding the immediate release of the dash-cam video of his killing,“ Sol shared.
BYP 100’s contribution to these reforms includes revamping a plan that the organization’s members’ hope will encourage the decriminalization of marijuana. The large number of inmates sentenced on nonviolent drug charges is a prominent, contributing factor to the country’s mass incarceration rates. This has encouraged discussions, between politicians and activist groups, about decriminalizing the drug and either minimizing or omitting mandatory sentencing laws. Birts acknowledged that black youth are incarcerated at disproportionate rates to their white counterparts for the possession of marijuana, despite the widely proposed claim that white youth are found to indulge in recreational marijuana at equal if not greater rates than black youth. She also clarified that there is a difference between decriminalizing the possession of marijuana and legalizing the redistribution of it, the latter of the two not being the goal of BYP 100.
BYP 100 is also executing a local “Say Her Name” campaign, which emphasizes that women, Rekia Boyd, for example, are often victims of police brutality and other acts of violence, despite the frequency of male victims.
While some of the commonalities are not explicitly clear, there are quite a few among the national and local movements for reform. Most obviously, pushes to change mandatory sentencing laws, decriminalize marijuana, and decrease levels of mass incarceration come from both channels. More importantly, both politicians and activists recognize each other’s key roles and the ways in which the others’ interests reflect or affect their own. On one end, politicians acknowledge that the communities in which their legislations thrive are those in which the social and political interests of the community are nourished by its members. On the other, those community members recognize that political representatives are the essential advocates for their interests. Although local organizations’ grassroots efforts mostly relate to policing and criminal justice, and political leaders are systematically working through legal means, both sectors are working together to establish, develop, and perfect legislation that addresses everyone’s concerns.
These can be as specific as stopping and frisking or use of force. Moreover, they can also as general as the policing of persons who encounter the police in possession of illegal drugs. The fact is, these are the first steps in a potentially lengthy experience with the criminal justice and prison systems. From being stopped, frisked, and/or arrested by the police, suspects may advance to be incarcerated in which concerns of unjust prison conditions, unethical punishments in solitary confinement, and ineffective recidivism reduction programs may arise. Activists and politicians, alike, have expressed concern in people becoming emerged in a cycle of release from and returning to prison, which contributes to mass incarceration. Both are also concerned with the high risk of unjustified killings committed by police because of race or some other demographic. For all of these reasons, national, state, and local administrations need to work in solidarity with community organizations to develop a just and fair criminal justice system.